Friday, September 3, 2010

Thoughts on canning garden tomatoes

Yes, that does say "Hotsie Totsie"
Canning is process.  Enjoy the process and you'll enjoy canning. 

As we prefer to focus on what is enjoyable as a general rule, we are going to do just that.  Still, there are some critically important details to think about when putting anything into a can today that you hope to eat in good health months from now.  For those details, we encourage you to explore the University of Minnesota's detailed page on how to can tomatoes safely.  Read it twice.

Let's talk processes.
Each stage of the canning process offers a chance to enjoy the right here and now of life. For some, canning begins with a seed catalogue in February and thoughts of warmer days.  In an ideal world, the leisurely perusal of Seed Savers or Heirloom Seeds takes place over a bowl of pasta dressed with last year's harvest.  The fact is though that few of us have the space to plant so many tomatoes that we have enough to eat in season and can as well, so let's fast forward to the harvest when growers from across Illinois, Indiana, and Michigan are looking forward to greeting you at your local farmers' market. 

A week ahead of time:

You'll need quite a few tomatoes, 23 lbs for 7 quarts as you read on the U of M's extension page, so plan ahead for your budget.  It is true that farmers' will often offer a discounted deal at the end of a market day, but they will offer you a deal on what they have left, and not necessarily what you want.  Better to go to the market a week ahead of your canning day and talk to your farmer about your needs.  They are likely to offer suggestions on which varieties are fun, which they prefer, and they may offer a discount due to the volume you are purchasing.   With this one small act, you have accomplished many things: You know who is growing your tomatoes, you have committed to a day of canning next week, and you have learned about this season's growing conditions.  We told you the process is fun.

Fight the urge to overbuy and plan reasonably.  You will not can four bushels of tomatoes on your first attempt, or even on your fortieth, no matter how badly we (we mean you) want to have a cupboard full of summer goodness the day after you've canned. 

During the week:

Browse the web for specific instructions on materials needed.  Here is a site that does a nice job of presenting the details.   During the week ahead of your canning day, double check that you have all the required materials including the canning pot.  Make a list, check it twice.  Read this forum for a comprehensive overview.  Personal experience indicates that running out for additional jars, rings, pots, pans, salt or anything else when you are up to your elbows in prepped tomatoes is a part of the process that is better avoided.  Avoid it with a good plan.

Canning Day!

Gather a group of folks who share your enthusiasm.  It's possible to can alone, but working with friends is a guarantee that you'll have a group that wants to come together this winter to share in the next part of the process. 

Think through the process that you have detailed.  Again, once you have jars warm and clean, tomatoes peeled and juiced and herbs prepared, it's a real pain in the arse to have to stop because you are missing something.  The French must do a lot of canning because their term "mis en place" is the first term you should learn.  Roughly translated, "mis en place" means "everything in its place and a place for everything".  The precise translation is "line up your ducks", or maybe that's what Confit de Canard means.  Our suggested mis en place includes:

Jars - sterilized and kept warm either in the closed hot dishwasher or in a 200 degree oven.  Consider the size of your canner and the amount of jars you'll need.  Have enough ready to go before you start.

Canner - whether you will be using a pressure canner or a water canner, have the pot ready to go with as much warm water as needed.  Take fifteen minutes before you start to read the instructions carefully.

Lids - have a pot of water on the stove and the lids you'll need submerged and ready. 

Clean towels - The rim of each jar needs to be wiped clean to ensure a proper seal.  One paper towel will be used quickly.  Have a few ready to go.

Jar lifter.
Tools - Oven mits for hot cans.  A laddle for the tomatoes you will transfer into the can.  A glass of wine paired with the appropriate music.  A pitcher or something like a pitcher to pour the tomato juice and or water into the cans.  A few essential tools that might not be obvious include a jar lifter which serves to remove the cans from the hot water when cooking is complete and a canning funnel that allows you to pour the tomatoes into the jar cleanly.

Canning Funnel

Flavors -
Flavors so simple a child will love them.
Your mis en place will inlcude whatever you might want to add to the jars, but we advise you to think simple, bright, and clean.   Happiness is the smell of summer tomatoes on a cold day in February.  We suggest being as pure as possible in your flavors.  Garlic, herbs and spices can all be added to the sauce that you will make months from now and a clean jar of tomatoes will allow you to follow whatever mood you are in when the time comes.  A jar full of tomatoes flavored with other things might be wonderful, but do you want 8-12 jars of the same?  The only times we recommend tomatoes and lots of other flavors is in case of a family recipe that one knows to be delicious and in case of a cupboard already full of simply canned tomatoes.  The picture at the top of this post shows "Tomatoes with Hotsie Totsie" that we made last weekend.  Note that its a small jar as compared to the others.  This was an experiment that we did after canning more than a bushel of tomato and basil.  We'll see how it tastes this winter.  As the picture at right shows, a bit of basil fresh from the garden is more than acceptable in our book.

Tomatoes -
Last but not least we have to talk about your choice of tomatoes!  "Canning tomatoes" likes Amish Paste and Romas have a lot of flesh and not too much liquid.  They are not quite as tasty fresh as a Cheorkee Purple or a Paul Robeson, but they will be fantastic in February.  Whichever type of large tomato you select, you will want to peel each before canning.  We encourage you to can a mixed selection of cherries as well.  The colors and flavors are great fun to look at for the next few months and even more fun to eat.  Most of these choices should be made during the planning stage, and the always critical "talking to the farmer" stage.  Listen to what the folks at the market have to say and you'll be on your way to canned happiness.

Time to eat!

We suspect you won't need much help here, but we do suggest that you see the eating as a critical part of the process and one that should be shared with old and new friends.  You might use the opening of a can as an excuse to call some of the people who helped grow and can the fruit.  You might also take a can to a group of new friends - nothing says hello like summer in February.  Finally, we end with the suggestion that you should also be ready to simply open a can on a Tuesday night with nothing special going on.  Even if you pour it over some pasta while reading the newspaper, the fruit of your labors will be a wonderful reminder of the process, the flavors, and the people worth celebrating in your life. 


Damien and Mo

This was written for The Local Beet and appears on that site as well.  Thanks for the chance to guest-post, Beets! 

Mo Ferris has been canning on her days off from the restaurant she manages in Chicago and is a graduate of Johnson and Wales.  Damien Casten is the guy whose inability to stop ordering heirloom seeds led to the birth of Chicago TomatoFest. 

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Heirloom Tomato Madness at Custom House Tavern

Owner Sue Kim and new Chef Perry Hendrix have taken Chicago TomatoFest to a whole new level.  They are doing so many things to help us complete the garden at Central Park and 12th place, it's hard to know where to begin so allow me to present the meal I had there last week. 

To start, take a look at the menu:

That's correct - they have FIVE dishes featuring Heirlooms from which they will donate $0.50 for each dish sold to preSERVES.  Well, that is sure generous, and we love the fact that they are sharing the story of TomatoFest with every customer who comes in the door, but how is new Chef Perry Hendrix using these heirlooms.  Quite well, actually.

Gazpacho was my first choice.  Chef Perry uses a healthy dose of garlic and a touch of heat, both of which were balanced with small cubes of watermelon, and I think a bit of watermelon juice splashed in at the end.  The result was a run of flavors that complemented the tomatoes instead diverting from the flavor. 

Chef Perry's "Bacon" at Custom House Tavern.
Next up I went for the BLT, of course, and had the good fortune of wandering into the kitchen to see what Chef was up to.  The answer was surprising to say the least.  Once a week, an entire pig's head from Slagel Farms is delivered to the restaurant.  Chef Perry debones it and then wraps the remaining skin, cartilage and muscle into a tight roll.  There is enough muscle in the cheek to make for a far less fatty cut that I expected.  After it is wrapped, the roll is then preserved for a few days in what tastes like rosemary, rosemary and more rosemary.  As a fan of rosemary, I thought the flavor was a great addition.  Instead of having a smokey, more traditional bacon flavor, this is herbal and bright.  Fascinating.

Next up, thin slices are sauteed before they go into the sandwich which is constructed with a thick piece of brioche, which I would argue is critical to absorbing the mayo and the tomato juices that one hopes will run all over hands while devouring an in season BLT.  (Is there any other kind?)

And now we come to a critical juncture.  What sort of heirlooms are being used by this talented young Chef who is brand new to the Chicago scene?  Turns out he has selected (at least on the day I was there) the Cherokee Purple, one of the most delicious of all heirlooms thanks to its rich, dark sweetness.  Well played, Sir!

Put it all together and you have a BLT that makes the trip to Custom House Tavern a must-try destination for lunch in the loop these days. 

Go for the BLT and stay for the Heirloom Tomato Infused Vodka drinks. That's right there is more.  Pictures and details follow in our next post...